What is the most offensive smell in the world?
I am sure there are some truly nasty smelling things out there, but there is one thing in particular that I find utterly utterly offensive and yet I have to come into contact with it every time I go to the Indian grocery store… I even have this in my very own home.
Hmm… what could it be? Any guesses?
If you read the title, then I’m sure you know… It’s the dreaded hing!
If I go to an Indian grocery store for the first time I can tell where they keep the hing based solely on a whiff at the head of the grocery aisle since the smell is so distinctive and strong. I really can’t describe it, but just writing about hing makes my nose itch; other names it is known by are “devil’s dung” and “stinking gum” so that should give you some sort of mental picture.
Well… perhaps not, since it doesn’t actually smell anything like dung… I guess it has more of a strong spicy medicinal smell… one of those smells that could clear your nostrils (and lungs, heck… perhaps it will even clean your toenails!) if you breathe it in deeply enough—which might just be true (the nostril and lungs part) since Wikipedia lists one of its traditional medicinal uses as helpful in alleviating asthma and bronchitis: “A folk tradition remedy for children’s colds: [mix it] into a pungent-smelling paste and [hang it] in a bag around the afflicted child’s neck.”
Blagh! Poor kid!
Upon a closer reading, I really think Wikipedia says it best… hing “has a pungent, unpleasant smell when raw… Its odor, when uncooked, is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers; otherwise the aroma will contaminate other spices stored nearby.”
The first time I came into contact with this product was when P and I were living in Central New York while he was completing his masters. For the first time there was an Indian grocery store in the same city as us, and occasionally we would drive to the other end of town and pick some stuff up. One day P found some hing in its little sealed off bottle and said, “this stuff is great!”
I picked it up and right away I could smell it… permeating through the white plastic container. What the hell was this stuff? P happily threw it into our shopping basket, and much to my dismay, we actually brought it home.
At first I kept it in the cupboard above the stove with our canned goods, but every time I came into the kitchen I could smell it… through the plastic container, through the wooden cupboard door, permeating the very smell of the kitchen itself. I put it in a plastic tupperware container, but I could still smell it. Then I put the tupperware container in a ziplock bag, and I swear I could still smell it. It took me weeks to get used to the smell enough not to notice it every time I entered the kitchen. What on earth would we ever use this repulsive smelling herb for? I certainly wasn’t going to ingest it.
Then one night I was having a really bad attack of some gastrointestinal issues. The pain was so intense I had trouble sleeping, trouble moving, trouble breathing. I just wanted to prick my stomach with a pin to remove the pressure it hurt so much. “I think I know exactly what will help you,” P declared, and ran off to the kitchen. He brought back the dreaded hing!
“No way am I eating that!” I said, “I already feel horrible, I will not make it worse!” but he insisted… his mother used to say it relieved gas and bad stomachaches. So he mixed some of it up in a glass of water and forced me to drink it. Ewww… I insisted that nothing changed, but with a lack of other options I laid down, and eventually felt comfortable enough to go to sleep. In the morning I felt a lot better. Could it be that this nasty herb actually helped me?
According to the Wikipedia entry on hing it actually has quite a few reputed medicinal qualities, including possible side effects that protect against H1N1, and it was even used to fight against the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Who would have guessed?
Recently I was reading through my handy dandy Nepali cookbook and noticed that several recipes were calling for a bit of “asafoetida.” I didn’t realize that asafoetida was hing until I was looking up some info on hing for a potential blog posting. So that means, some of my favorite Nepali dishes use (in some recipes) the dreaded hing, I never knew! When cooked it is suppose to have the “taste and aroma reminiscent of sautéed onion and garlic.” I even found an interesting National Geographic blog posting about Jain cooking using hing in place of onions to bring an onion flavor to their dishes without using the religiously off-limits vegetable. Well… I like cooked onion and garlic…
… so maybe I need to give hing a chance…
… but I can’t promise that I won’t hold my breath!